Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

10 Shevat 5759 - Jan. 27, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Opinion & Comment
Science and the Borei Olom
By Joshua Josephson

We are living in interesting times. Scientists are beginning again to speak openly and seriously about the existence of a Creator.

The revolution has been long in the making. But many of the pieces, which have been falling into place for decades, are coming to a head.

For the past one hundred and fifty years, science has been a force that has opposed and indeed denigrated belief in a Borei Olom. But this appears to be changing. The change may not yet be palpable to the average person. It may be a bit slow in coming. But it is there.

One need only walk into a library and look at the titles of some recent books. Some of these books were written by believers; but many were written by agnostics or atheists. Here are some recent titles: G-d and the Astronomers, G-d and the New Physics, The Creator and the Cosmos.

The message is quite clear. G-d is very much on the mind of scientists these days. The reason: Evidence favoring the existence of a Borei Olom is just simply too overwhelming to ignore.

This is not to say that we can expect a stampede of scientists into our shuls. Scientists are not simply going to walk away from their long held and cherished beliefs. They certainly will not easily admit that they have been wrong all along.

So we find that they are still attempting to create alternative theories to explain the facts. But in almost all cases, these attempts are nothing more than idle speculation and myth-making. To overcome the awesome evidence in favor of a Borei Olom, it is necessary to twist and turn, to propose theories that scientists know and admit are unproven and indeed in many cases totally unprovable.

This change that is taking place has been most clearly articulated by scientists who are involved in, or have an interest in, cosmology, astronomy, and physics. The fact of the existence of a revolution is certainly less obvious in the area of the life sciences. Biologists still believe that they will be able to solve the riddle of life without having to refer to a Creator. But if one reads between the lines, one can discern even in the area of biology that science is clearly on the defensive.

One need only look at some of the responses that highly reputable scientists are propounding to answer the question of how life arose on this planet. One such example should suffice to drive home the point.

The discovery of the role DNA plays in heredity, the elucidation of its construction and the understanding of means by which the information on the DNA is translated by the body into proteins, the chemicals of life, rank among the greatest achievements of twentieth century biology and science. A good deal of the credit for these discoveries has gone to Francis Crick who, together with James Watson, won the Nobel Prize for having determined the nature of DNA. Crick is certainly one of the most highly respected scientists of the century.

In '81, Crick wrote a book called Life Itself: Its Origins and Nature in which he hypothesizes about the origins of life on Earth. He discusses at some length the improbability of life arising by chance and also explains why the conditions on a primitive Earth could not have been suitable for the development of life. He then gives us his conclusion. The best alternative, he says, is to suppose that aliens did it. He emphatically declares that the most sensible conclusion one can reach is that aliens are responsible for the existence of life on Earth.

No, he was not joking.

Life, he argues, could not have arisen spontaneously on Earth. It happened too quickly. It is too complex. Thus, he says we must suppose that it arose first somewhere else in the universe. Then we must further suppose that life in this distant location evolved into a very advanced civilization. For reasons which we can only speculate about, and speculate he does, this advanced civilization decided one day to seed the universe with life. So they sent out primitive organisms in a spaceship to the far reaches of the galaxy in the hope that these spaceships would encounter other planets that might be suitable for the evolution of life. One of these spaceships landed on planet Earth. That's how we got here, folks.

He even goes so far as to propose that we earthlings do the same.

Apparently, the notion of an all powerful Creator is too "farfetched" for illustrious scientists such as he. So they are willing to accept any alternative theory, no matter how farfetched, rather than succumb to belief in the existence of Hashem.

Crick is not the only one having trouble believing that life could have formed by chance on Earth.

Some other very prominent scientists, Sir Fred Hoyle and Nalin Chandra Wickramasinghe, have come up with another strange idea because they too think that life could not have developed randomly on Earth. So they as well look to outer space to find the cause. They do not blame aliens. But they do hypothesize that space is full of life-forming carbon chemicals that drifted onto Earth and gave this planet the jump start it needed for the development of life.

My objective in presenting these theories is not to discuss them. They are not scientific in that they lack the key ingredient that science possesses -- they cannot be proved nor disproved. Hence, they are no more than mere speculation.

My point in mentioning these outlandish theories is to highlight the sorry state of scientific theories about the origins of life. One thing is certain. When you see highly respected scientists creating myths, you know that science has encountered a very serious, intractable problem.

What has happened to the theory of evolution which is supposed to account in a "scientific" way for the origin of life? Why in general the renewed openness to the existence of a Creator? What has sparked this revolution in science?

The answer is very many things, from astronomy to physics to fossils to biology. For now, let us focus on just one small piece of one part of the total puzzle: the "numbers" that pertain to the theory of evolution.

At the time the theory of evolution was first proposed about 150 years ago, no one had any real idea of how complex life really is. The microscope, which had been in use since the late 17th century, was by modern standards still quite primitive. Very little was known about even something as basic as the structure of the cell, the building block of all living things. Because organic chemistry was also in its infancy, no analysis of the myriads of chemicals that comprise the cell was even possible. The existence of DNA as a blueprint for life, which was fully understood only less than fifty years ago, was not even suspected. Indeed, Mendelian genetics was still totally unknown. (Though Mendel did his work during the same general period as Darwin, his ideas did not become an established part of scientific thought until about half a century after Darwin wrote.)

Evolutionary theory was hence built on scanty knowledge of what life and living things are really like. All Darwin could examine was the gross structure of plants and animals. All he could do was compare eye to eye, tooth to tooth, claw to claw, limb to limb.

But what he saw at this level could be no more than misleading. Two slightly different organs may appear to the observer to be just a tad different from each other. But their similarities and their comparable features belie the overwhelming complexity that often must exist, the countless changes that minute chemicals must undergo, to effectuate the small differences visible to the naked eye.

Despite the scientific blindness under which he labored, Darwin is still known to have said that he "shuddered" when he thought about the complexity of the eye. Even at the gross level, the eye seems so inordinately complicated that one must have doubts about whether such an organ could have developed through random minute changes of previously existing structures.

As information about the realities underlying life became known, the theory of evolution of course underwent changes as well. Darwin's basic conception of minute changes coupled with natural selection as the driving force behind evolutionary change was not doubted. But the methods by which changes could be effected and the end results of these changes became far better understood. Hence it was possible to put evolutionary theory on a somewhat more solid foundation.

Indeed, using things like population genetics, it was possible to make all sorts of calculations about how easy or how difficult it is for evolution to happen. The numbers generated during the early part of the century led scientists to believe that evolution was on firm theoretical ground.

By mid-century, biologists were so confident of their position that in '53, a Nobel laureate and Harvard University biology professor, George Wald, made the following pompous and foolish declaration in an article in Scientific American:

"However improbable we regard this event [referring to the start of life], or any of the steps which it involves, given enough time it will almost certainly happen at least once. . . . Time is in fact the hero of the plot. . . . What we regard as impossible on the basis of human experience is meaningless here [because billions of years are at issue]. Given so much time the `impossible' becomes the possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait: time itself performs the miracles."

The myth of monkeys and typewriters at its best. [See Yated parshas Shemos and Voeiro]

If the tragic effects of this sort of statement were not so great, the statement would be cause for laughter. Unfortunately, it was statements such as these that misled and spiritually destroyed generations of people, countless Jews included.

Be that as it may, by mid century all seemed well, as far as the scientific community was concerned -- that is, until DNA was understood and the mathematicians took a closer look at the problem. Ironically, the elucidation of DNA occurred in the very same year that Wald's ridiculous statement was published in Scientific American.

Before the discovery of DNA, the basic unit of heredity was considered to be the gene. Precisely what this thing was, was not known. All that was known was that there were some sort of packets, many of them, that got transmitted from parent(s) to child. These packets contained information which would determine, in the human for example, what the child would be like, black or red hair, white or dark skin, tall or short.

Making calculations where the basic unit of information is something like a whole gene, a discrete, singular packet of information, is akin to the sort of thing Darwin did years earlier. Manipulating numbers when gross structures or entire genes are involved does not necessarily lead to arithmetic absurdities.

But things began to unravel with the discovery of DNA and the emergence of an understanding of how information within living things was stored, transmitted and used. Genes are not, as was earlier supposed, neat little packets of unitary material that can be manipulated numerically as whole single items. Rather they are comprised of lengthy chapters of detailed, minute information.

There are pages and pages of information to contend with. The DNA language is comprised of a four letter alphabet. These "letters" are used to "write" all the detailed information necessary for the construction of an organism. Human DNA, for example, is several billion letters long.

Once DNA was discovered and the mechanism for the translation of the DNA to proteins understood, the picture changed entirely. Now for the first time, it became possible to make some real calculations, to determine exactly what had to occur for changes of any sort to happen. For evolutionary change to take place, vast numbers of data items must be affected. And once the calculations were made, it became obvious to all that randomness alone could not create life. There has to be far more to it than chance.

How dramatic the change in attitude was can be seen from a later issue of Scientific American. In '79, it devoted a special edition to the question of the origins of life. Professor Wald's article, which had so arrogantly and confidently declared that randomness plus time would certainly produce life, was reprinted in full. But this time it came with the following editorial comment:

"Although stimulating, this article probably represents one of the very few times in his professional life when Wald has been wrong."

Why the change of heart? Because when the calculations are done, it becomes patently clear that randomness could not have produced life. As Sir Fred Hoyle [who thinks that life's chemicals originate in outer space] put it, the spontaneous emergence of a single-cell organism from random couplings of chemicals "is about as likely as the assemblage of a 747 by a tornado whirling through a junk yard." Indeed, since 1979, no reputable scientific journal has accepted any article which presupposes that life arose merely by chance.

We cannot infer from this that scientists have abandoned evolutionary theory. But certainly simple randomness and chance are no longer viewed as the driving forces behind evolutionary change.

The revolution that is occurring in the sciences ought to be good news. The discoveries of science may be leading us to the time when universal belief in a Borei Olom will be a reality. Certainly, the discoveries of science can no longer pretend to place those who believe in Hashem on the defensive. To the contrary, those who refuse to accept a Borei Olom are now on the defensive and working hard to explain the facts.

G-d willing, we will look next time at some of the numbers that have caused this change of affairs.

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